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LSB: the listener's voice at KPFA (Pacifica Radio)

by Daniel & Virginia Saturday, Nov. 11, 2006 at 12:49 PM
daniel [at]

Descent into the gnarly tangle: the epidemiology of advanced parliamentarianism at KPFA--a yearlong empirical study in causes and possible treatments


by Daniel Borgström, with micromanagement help from Virginia Browning

ABOUT a year ago I took up board-watching. As a KPFA listener I've been attending the monthly public meetings of the Local Station Board (LSB), and I have to admit that for me it's often been like looking into the insides of my computer and trying to figure out what's going on in there. Just learning the names and faces of the LSB members and the roles they play has taken a while There's also a host of other players in this drama, some of whom I've met or at least seen, and a lot more who just seem to be out there somewhere, exerting their influence on events. Names without faces. And of course there are the hijackers of the 1990's, ghosts of the past, who still seem to cast their nefarious shadows over KPFA and Pacifica Radio.

The board has 25 members. Usually they meet at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, and at least 20 are normally present, but they don't always work together in the greatest of harmony. Not at all. The board is dysfunctional and that was clear enough from the very beginning, but it took me a lot longer to start seeing the dynamics of the group. For me the moment of clarity, or the beginning of it at least, was Saturday, April 22nd, the day the LSB met in San Jose.

I got lost on the way down from Oakland, arrived quite late and walked in the door fearing the meeting would be nearly over. Well, my fears were unfounded. The session hadn't even begun. The board members were still haggling over what items to include on the afternoon's agenda.

This preliminary phase of the meeting was dominated by Robert's Rules of Order--in all its glory. Someone would speak and someone else would interrupt, saying, "Point of order." The point-of-order guy was Brian Edwards-Tiekert. He had points of order on this and points of order on that. At times they would move toward a vote on something, but first they had to vote on how to vote--simple majority or 2/3rds. And of course there were votes to end discussions and votes to continue discussions. And so on.

The purpose for holding this meeting in San Jose was to include listeners from the South Bay Area, to hear their input, and involve them in the KPFA process. At least the first part of the plan had been a success, because the room was nearly full, some fifty local people, listeners and activists, having come. But by the time the agenda was finally approved--some three hours having been spent on it--it was well into the afternoon, and many of the listeners had gone home. For those who remained, it was time for those who wished to address the board to do so. Many did, and, not surprisingly, listener after listener castigated the board for the horrendous, time-wasting display of parliamentary procedures they had just been subjected to.

At long last, having worked out an agenda, and having received well-deserved scoldings from what remained of the audience, the board could finally settle into the business of the day. The only problem was that the meeting hall had to be vacated by five o'clock, and it was now already after four. So, most of the agreed-upon agenda was jettisoned in hopes of dealing with one supremely urgent issue, a matter concerning the national board of Pacifica Radio.

However, there was one further problem to be dealt with. Although the hall had to be vacated by five, the meeting was scheduled to end at 4:20. The board seemed to agree on an extension, but it had to be done according to Robert's Rules of Order.

And, of course, Brian was there to complicate matters. All afternoon he'd been bringing up arcane points of order, and now he did more of the same. He went on and on with it, seemingly impervious to the intense anger and scolding that had just been expressed by listeners who'd attended this meeting in hopes of seeing something done. Of course his points were correct, according to the revered rules at least, but they were pointless points.

"Brian! What are you doing!" yelled Sepideh, another board member. And Brian promptly responded with some rule to say that her rebuke was out of order.

I and other listeners in the audience sat there, helplessly watching the clock and groaning as the precious minutes ticked away. Five minutes wasted, then ten. Another five, and, finally, after twenty of those last minutes had been squandered on this, the chair overruled him and called for a vote. The meeting was extended till 5 p.m.

That single crucial item--concerning the national board of Pacifica Radio--was then quickly discussed and the vote was unanimous, Brian being part of the unanimity. The meeting then adjourned, having spent half an hour of that long afternoon on actual business.

So why had Brian gone off on that parliamentary binge? He's a capable KPFA news reporter, and has aired several excellent, well researched reports on environmental topics; that made it even harder for me to understand his disruptive use of the rules of order. It seemed a bizarre and inconsistent way for an intelligent person to act. He seems a likable person; I couldn't imagine him being so incredibly inconsiderate to all the people at that meeting. The big "why" of Brian's actions kept puzzling me as I remembered him sitting there, appearing from time to time as if he were desperate to make a point of order. Then, almost compulsively, his hand would reach out towards a microphone, like an alcoholic grasping for a drink.

Addict, junkie, Robert's abuser. The sickness of parliamentarianism. Brian Edwards-Tiekert was clearly addicted to Robert's Rules of Order, and, like so many addicted persons, he created chaos in the community around him. "Parliamentarians Anonymous," I kept thinking, maybe that was the answer.

Addictions are said to be a symptom of deeper set problems, often something in the family, and the KPFA family has more than its share of problems. There is even a faction of the board that supports and encourages Brian in his parliamentary binges.

The letters "LSB" officially stand for "Local Station Board," but a good many people who're deeply involved with KPFA say "Listener Station Board." It's a slip of the tongue that reveals the way it's perceived. That is, although the staff have seats on it, the idea is that it's basically there to give listeners a voice. However, it's not that simple.

There are two voting blocs in the LSB, but first let me say a bit about the make up of this board. Of its 25 members, one is from KFCF, the sister station in Fresno; 18 are "listener reps," who are elected by KPFA listeners contributing or more to the station; and the remaining six are "staff reps," elected by KPFA's staff. As it's turned out, the listener reps tend to take one side of most issues, and staff reps the other. But it's not that clear cut. A group of around eleven listener reps and one staff rep comprise the pro-listener bloc, associated with People's Radio. Another five of the listener reps consistently vote with the staff. This is the pro-staff bloc that Brian is part of; he's a staff rep. The remaining listener reps act as swing votes.

Since People's Radio and their allies have a slight majority, the pro-staff faction often depends on parliamentary procedures to keep issues they don't welcome off the agenda, and, when that fails, filibusters to use up meeting time to prevent those issues from being acted upon. Was that what happened in San Jose? There's more than one take on that. Let me give one of them right here.

There was an issue that some speculated Brian et al might be avoiding--that of the "banned" Labor Collective. The Labor Collective was a group of programmers whose productions were put on moratorium for a year by the KPFA Program Council. The Program Council consists of programmers and listeners. This was a complicated issue which probably should've been referred to the program director or the station's general manager. However, KPFA hadn't had a program director for years, and there was not a general manager at that time.

The lack of a general manager has come to be almost "normal" at KPFA. The station has been through several general managers in recent years, none of whom lasted very long. So who runs the station? Good question, I do believe, but please let me pass on that one because it involves a lot of names without faces in roles which seem only vaguely defined.

Anyway, the members of the "moratoriumed" Labor Collective took their case to the LSB. However, this was far more than a simple question of treating the Labor Collective fairly. The issue opened up a whole Pandora's box of complex issues.

In a station that lacked a general manager and program director, how far should the board go in intervening? Whatever was done was likely to set a precedent, and after that, how far would future board interventions go; where might they stop--or, rather, not stop? Programmers said they feared "micromanagement" by people who might not be trained in radio.

There's the famous airplane analogy expressed a couple of years ago by a KPFA newscaster: Passengers should stay out of the cockpit and leave the crew to fly the plane. Well, that's a valid point. It takes training to fly a plane or to create good radio, and there's a fear that if untrained listeners get too involved things might crash. I can sympathize with that view. Most of us would resent being micromanaged at things we do. People have been trying to micromanage me ever since I was in the second grade and I've always hated it.

On the other hand, back to the airplane analogy again--when we get on a plane heading for New York, we don't want to wind up in Texas. And we certainly don't want the plane hijacked en route. KPFA is an airplane that's been hijacked before.

I should add that the programmer who brought up the airplane analogy went way beyond objecting to micromanaging by listeners or passengers crowding into the cockpit. I wasn't there that day, so I'm quoting from an essay by Robbie Osman of Across the Great Divide, who was outraged at his fellow staff member's arrogance: "[The programmer] called the listener board representatives and those listeners who had come to watch the board meeting and to participate in the public comment segment of the meeting 'self appointed guardians with too much time on their hands.'"

Other staff members have expressed similar resentments towards listeners who attend board meetings. In a KPFA Staff Open Letter (8/20/2004) Sasha Lilley of Against the Grain referred to attendees as "the grey haired 40 people who come to every LSB meeting with such regularity that you could save seats in advance for them all." Her objection seems to be that these people don't represent, even unofficially, the thousands of KPFA listeners. Who would she not object to? I'm a KPFA listener, but I'm not an elected representative of anything. I attend all sorts of progressive events and write for my website as well as Indymedia and sometimes for print publications. Others who attend LSB meetings do likewise, and I would like to think that our activity is of some value to the community. It's really unfortunate that some of the staff have such contempt for us. By the way, yes, my hair is indeed gray--so what?

My take on the above comment by Sasha Lilley is that she and some others of the staff don't want listeners to have a meaningful voice at KPFA. They ask for our money, but some of them apparently don't want our input. Input isn't always micromanagement. One example of meaningful input is a request that Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" show be moved to prime time so that it would be more accessible to listeners who work 9 to 5. Such a resolution was actually passed a couple of years ago by the Program Council, but was never implemented. Someone has been stonewalling.

Nor do they seem to want our oversight. Listener oversight is the best defense against takeovers. The lockout of 1999 wasn't an incident where a team of hijackers armed with box cutters and submachineguns slipped into the station on some dark stormy night, overpowered the staff and seized control of our radio apparatus. Not at all. It was a slow motion takeover which began around 1992 and took place over a period of about seven years. It was an inside job.

To prevent such a thing from happening again, KPFA & Pacifica Radio were outfitted with a system of checks and balances. Separation of powers. That concept existed before capitalism and even before feudalism; it goes way back and in every age the only alternative to checks and balances has always been some sort of dictatorship. At KPFA listeners have an important role in oversight. The LSB was created as part of this system, to oversee the conduct, management and control of the station's affairs. and as such, it has powers and duties.

One of the duties of the LSB is to oversee the financial activities of KPFA. That's true of any board of any institution--access to financial and other records is a given. However, at KPFA this given has not been a given. Staff members at KPFA and Pacifica Radio refused to let the LSB see the records. One of the persons who impeded the LSB's access was actually himself also a member of the LSB, a staff rep. Nevertheless, for over a year board members Richard Phelps, LaVarn Williams and others with People's Radio struggled to get access, and finally succeeded. Thanks to their efforts, the board does have access--for the first time in all these years since the end of the hijacking.

Access to records is the sine qua non of transparency and accountability. It's like getting to square one or even pre-square one. Without transparency, democracy is an empty word that even Bush & Cheney can use. People's Radio and their allies on the board got the LSB to square one, and for this, they were repeatedly vilified by a stream of anonymous postings on Indymedia. And, there was a fellow who routinely spoke up during board meeting listener comments to call them "Hitler-like" and "anti-democratic." That's Jim Weber, currently an LSB candidate.

In the midst of the struggle over access and transparency, there surfaced the famous email of September 1, 2005. It was from Brian Edwards-Tiekert, and addressed to eight persons, including three of the pro-staff people on the LSB, persons I saw at every board meeting. The other five recipients were staff people at the station, five of those "names without faces." Two of those names have since become somewhat familiar. One is Lemlem Rijio, now Interim General Manager, and the other is the above mentioned Sasha Lilley. As of last week she became Interim Program Director.

"[W]e need a general strategy session." the email read. It contained this intriguing line: "Strategic retreat on the LSB--how do we make our enemies own the problems that are to come? Alternatively, should we be recalling LSB members/dismantling the LSB?"

The phrase "dismantling the LSB" set off an alarm among the pro-listener members of the board, because there had been such talk in the past--there did seem to be people who wanted to dismantle the LSB, which in effect would mean silencing the listeners. People's Radio held a public forum and invited Brian Edwards-Tiekert to attend and discuss the matter. That was October 20, 2005. I wasn't able to attend that evening; but I'm told Brian spoke very convincingly in denying any intentions of dismantling the LSB. The person who told me that was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt at the time, but has had more thoughts on the matter since that afternoon in San Jose. A number of people have.

Brian is a whiz kid when it comes to Robert's, and I do honestly believe he gets a high off of that parliamentarian stuff, but he must've had other additional motives for what he did in San Jose. While some accused him of filibustering to keep the issue of the "moratoriumed" Labor Collective off the floor, not everybody buys that explanation either. One person who rejected it offered this thought:

"This part kept bugging me--couldn't figure out completely why. I remember now: it wasn't this simple. The issue about the Labor Collective was fairly far down the agenda that day as I recall. I remember myself wondering what in the hell Brian was doing. If this had been [to keep the Labor Collective issue off the floor], it would have been more explainable. However, it certainly doesn't go any ways at all to explain why Brian even wanted to close the meeting before the vote about the appointed National Board members was taken. The only explanation that does make sense for that San Jose thing is what I think may be Brian's (and allies') strategy: to cause the board to be so dysfunctional, even in the matter of important [issues], that pressure is increased for a change in the type of board we have: from this listener-voted type to some other, such as appointed. I don't think Brian cared a whit about whether the Labor Collective thing came up then."

Half a year has passed since that Saturday in San Jose, and we're now in the midst of an election for nine listener-rep seats on the LSB. There are two slates, and a number of independents, most of whom lean toward one slate or the other. One of the slates, the "Alliance for a democratic KPFA" includes some People's Radio members and is committed to transparency and accountability.. It's an open secret that the other slate, the "Concerned Listeners for KPFA" was put together by the pro-staff group.

But I wonder how many KPFA listeners even knew that an LSB election was in progress until a few days ago. The ballots were mailed out on October 16th, but hardly any announcement of this election was aired by the station. Yes, there was a single two-hour "Meet the Candidates" show. I believe it was aired only once. Ten days later, on October 27th, the station began airing election messages by candidates in a normal way. There was also a two hour presentation of candidates on Sunday October 29th where listeners could phone in and ask questions of the candidates. All of this is good, but hardly enough. Hardly even a beginning.

Democracy requires information; it's that simple. Admittedly, it would take a large amount of airtime and face to face time to adequately present the issues and the 22 candidates in a meaningful way. But the station's efforts seem to have been abjectly minimal.

This is the sort of thing that election reformers complain about in regard to state and federal elections--since candidates are not given free airtime, they are forced into fundraising. And the ones who raise the most money generally stand the best chance in getting their message out. We all know that story. Well, in a much smaller way, that's what's happening in KPFA's LSB election. The staff-backed "Concerned Listeners" slate was able to raise enough money for a significant mailing. While it was nothing like the huge bundles of mail sent out by candidates for state and federal offices, it still gives an advantage to the side with the money. Henry Norr has written an article about this titled "KPFA Elections: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy?"

KPFA could've avoided this situation and created a fairly level playing field by giving this very important LSB election more airtime. Somebody in the station chose not to.

So I look back on what I've seen over the last year and wonder what sort of plans Brian's associates have in mind for KPFA. Whatever their agenda may be, they're not being open about it.



Vote in the LSB election

Attend LSB meetings. Be one of those listeners--gray-haired or otherwise--who "come to every LSB meeting with such regularity that you could save seats in advance for them all."

Learn all you can about KPFA/Pacifica Radio--Listeners who haven't heard their station's history could find themselves in an encore performance.

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